Last July I visited with Tiler Peck, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, while she was guest teaching at her old ballet school in Santa Monica. She was emphatic then about her desire to return to her home state whenever possible. This past weekend, she came back to California to dance as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Pacific Festival Ballet production of The Nutcracker in Thousand Oaks. It's her third year helping out with the local production.
Many ballet stars hit the road during Nutcracker season to perform with local companies. Benefits include extra income and stage time, as well as the knowledge that they are inspiring and motivating the younger dancers in the production, many of them still students. "I look forward to this gig every year," Peck told me. "It's fun to share the stage with so many children. Also, my family and friends come and they don't normally get to see me dance in person." This year she performed alongside Joan Boada, a principal with the San Francisco Ballet who danced the Cavalier.
"One of the things that makes Tiler so endearing is that she always makes time for the kids, always finds time to sign their pointe shoes," said Kim Maselli, the company's artistic director. Young starstruck fans knocked steadily on Peck's dressing room door for a treasured autograph. "One kid wanted me to sign her face in permanent marker!" she said. It was the one request that went ungranted. An hour before the Sunday matinee performance, three eleven-year-old girls, dancers in the show, hovered close by, giggling and gawking at Peck while she prepared her pointe shoes. They declared her their favorite ballerina, and when asked if they had ever seen her perform before this, they said in unison, "only on YouTube!". (Here's a sample.)
The pre-show mood in Peck and Boada's shared dressing room was relaxed and chatty. Since the two didn't have to appear on stage until the second act, there was plenty of time for makeup, hair and gossip. Topics of conversation included Hurricane Sandy, movies, basketball, fashion, and choreography — good and bad. Chocolate was consumed. Boada, who grew up in Cuba, compared notes on Havana with Peck, who recently performed at the Havana International Ballet Festival.
Peck casually transformed herself into the Sugar Plum Fairy while sharing iPhone photos and holiday plans. Her glittering tutu, made for her by the New York City Ballet costume shop, lay safely on the floor waiting to be put on. "That's the one thing I don't check through luggage," she said.
Peck talked about what she considers to be the highlight of her year: dancing at the Kennedy Center Honors earlier this month. Chosen to dance for prima ballerina Natalia Makarova, one of the honorees, Peck performed "Other Dances," a Jerome Robbins piece originally choreographed for Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Peck admitted to having major nerves, finding it all "crazy" but thrilling at the same time. She had starstruck moments of her own, meeting Glenn Close, Morgan Freeman, David Letterman, Rahm Emanuel (a ballet dancer in his youth), Bill Clinton and celebrities-in-chief the Obamas.
In the wings between scenes.
Finally, with warmup clothes over their costumes, Peck and Boada made their way to the wings. Now all business, they became part of the huge machine that is any production of "The Nutcracker," with dancers of varying ages whizzing on and offstage in all manner of exotic costumes. When not on stage, Peck and Boada kept to themselves in the area reserved for them, equipped with folding chairs and box of rosin, which dancers dip the toes of their shoes in to prevent slippage. This weekend was their first time dancing together, so they exchanged tips and checked each other's costumes. Boada at one point smoothed Peck's hair. After the performance, Peck's parents, sister, and grandmother came backstage. Like anyone who doesn't get to see their family as often as she'd like, Peck looked really happy to have them there.
The Thousand Oaks stop is the midway point for Peck on her Nutcracker circuit. She performed earlier in the NYCB production (dancing both Sugar Plum Fairy and Dewdrop) and she next heads to Vancouver for a week of performances with the Goh Ballet. Though Peck is a world traveler, Vancouver is a new city for her and she plans to squeeze in as much sight-seeing as possible, along with some last-minute holiday shopping. After that it's back to New York by Christmas Eve. Her family will be spending the holiday with her in New York, giving Peck an ideal ending to what has been, for her, a pretty spectacular year.
The Kennedy Center Honors gala air on CBS on December 26, at 9 p.m.
Photographs by Iris Schneider
Previously on LA Observed:
Ballet star Tiler Peck is a devoted California girl